For two years, Shiloh Champagne, an 8-year-old from LaPlace, begged her mother to sign her up for chess lessons.
For a while, her mom didn’t know where to send her. Then Champagne won the lottery for a place at John L. Ory Communications Magnet Elementary School, where a friend’s father had just started a chess club for students.
The club has been a “blessing” for Shiloh, said her mother, Dorlisa Fobb. Since joining the club this year, she’s more engaged in her studies, more comfortable with “high order thinking” and generally inspired to work harder.
On Saturday, as Shiloh sat playing against her peers at the New Orleans Chess Festival, her mother lamented that more schools in the area don’t offer opportunities to learn chess.
According to the latest count by festival coordinator and author Michael Tisserand, only 26 schools in Orleans and Jefferson parishes offer chess programs. There are even fewer in surrounding parishes, parents said.
“If many more parents would do this, our children could learn more,” Fobb, 45, said about her daughter’s chess club.
That’s exactly the kind of thinking that prompted the festival, which celebrated its second year at the Rosa F. Keller Library and Community Center in Broadmoor. Nicknamed “Chess Fest,” the event was designed to encourage more area schools and parents to develop scholastic chess programs.
This year, there was another goal, Tisserand said: to get more girls in the game.
To that end, he was excited to present headliner Irina Krush, who recently was deemed by Business Insider the “greatest American female chess player in history” after winning her seventh U.S. Chess Championship.
Krush, who was the first American woman to become a grandmaster, demonstrated her abilities Saturday by giving a blindfold chess demonstration, where she told a partner where to move the pieces while picturing the board in her mind.
She also played simultaneous games on 21 chessboards at once. Audience members watched as Krush dashed from game to game, spending anywhere from a second to about a minute on each move.
“It’s crazy!” said 8-year-old Sachin Dasa, a member of the Newman School Chess Club, as he looked on with wide eyes.
His sister, 6-year-old Anjali Dasa, agreed. “It’s so cool,” she said.
On Saturday, Krush said she was happy to be a role model for children, especially girls, pointing out that of all the world’s grandmasters of chess, only 2 percent are women.
“It’s a big benchmark in chess, to become a grandmaster,” she said. “You have to play thousands of hours of chess. It’s a testament to your work and devotion to the game.”
Tisserand was equally enthusiastic.
“It’s exciting to be in the presence of someone who is so focused on being the best that they do,” he said about Krush, who has been teaching his 17-year-old daughter Cecilia over Skype for years. “My hopes are that by showing her as a role model, that women can become superstars in chess as well.”
He pointed to an article in Scientific American, which discussed why so few girls stick with chess long enough to become masters, like Krush. The article said girls have long been subject to a “stereotype threat” that affects their performance against boys, in chess and elsewhere. Essentially, anxiety over performing worse than boys — a reaction to a stereotype — often manifests itself in real-world performance gaps.
Tisserand, who said he’s seen firsthand what chess can do for young women, said he has long been working to counteract the added pressure that girls feel. He began 11 years ago, when Cecilia, then 6, began playing.
Ultimately, Cecilia did well. After joining Lusher Charter School’s chess team, she went on to play championship games. Eventually, she assumed a leadership role and started a chess team at a camp where she was a counselor.
“It’s a very unique part of her life,” Tisserand said, adding that the game boosted her confidence and helped dictate the way she approaches problem-solving in general. “When you play chess, your plan has to be extraordinarily both complex and direct.”
Tisserand, who long coached the chess program at Lusher, also has remained dedicated to the game since he started playing with his daughter.
On Saturday, he joined chess enthusiasts from all over the country to share their love of the game, in a variety of outlets.
For example, the festival featured a Harry Potter-style “living chess” game for the second year, encouraging younger chess players to get excited about the game. Wearing black and white shirts painted as pawns, bishops and other pieces, the kids re-enacted a famous game played by 19th-century New Orleans chess legend Paul Morphy.
As the kids giggled, jumped around and made faces at one another, former Louisiana chess champion James Rousselle reprised his role as Morphy, a prodigy and unofficial world champion.
Saturday’s event also featured all-day chess tournaments, chess-themed crafts, lessons and other events for players big and small.
Next year, Tisserand hopes to expand the festival by presenting a tournament for higher-ranked players, in addition to lessons and games for those who are less experienced.
“There’s nothing better than seeing a kid surprise themselves at what they can do,” he said, adding that the game’s future in New Orleans will depend on making opportunities for kids to play at all levels. “That’s why there’s Chess Fest.”